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Interview with William Rubel, Food Historian (part 3)

Posted Dec 20 2008 5:43pm

William Rubel, a friend of mine, author of The Magic of Fire and co-founder of the children’s literary magazine Stone Soup, is writing a history of bread.

RUBEL I think that, in terms of culture–human culture–it seems that rich people have liked purity. We’ve been smelting metals for a very long time and smelting metals is taking dirt and out of the dirt creating a refined silver or brass or copper, even gold. I know that gold exists in little pieces, but nonetheless, there’s a lot of melting and purifying. So it just seems to me that logically once a culture had gold, once a culture had metal, the idea of purifying the grain to get white is not a huge conceptual leap.

White flour is a form of conspicuous consumption because you are keeping the endosperm–the starchy part–and throwing away the rest of it. And when you do it by grinding and sifting, and you leave an efficient system, you might throw away 75% of the grain to get 25%–the super white or 50% of it that will be white and 50% that you will throw away. You’re not throwing it away into the trash can, but you’ll feed it to a lower status person–the servants will get the rest of it–and of course you can also feed it to the pigs. But you would keep the white flour for yourself and make a lower status bread for servants and slaves. Historically the slaves were the ones who ground the flour. In the biblical period they did, and presumably before that as well. The earliest reference I’ve seen is in a book on cooking in Byzantium, I think about 800 AD, in Constantinople and someone is saying, ‘Oh the bread here is just white and fluffy like clouds. It’s degenerate, awful bread.’

ROBERTS You mean they did not like white bread at that point?

RUBEL This is a person who is criticizing it. He is saying that the white bread in the city, which is fluffy and white as clouds, is a sign of cultural decay. It’s a bad thing. And that critique of white bread, which we have today–that you’re throwing all the best parts away, that there’s something almost morally wrong about eating white bread–is a very common critique. I think by someone named Tyson in the book called The Way to Health, I think, in the early 1600s . . . I read certainly in medical texts from the 1500s and early 1600s, people saying, ‘This white bread is essentially empty calories and it’s a bread for courtiers,’ who are eating it because they are aping the social class above them, but that it’s not really very healthy. In the 18th century when people in France, in particular, became concerned about having enough good to feed the general population, one concern was that Paris had a culture of white bread and there were often grain shortages because it takes, out of a bushel of grain, you only get half a bushel of white flour. It was an inefficient use of flour, so the government was trying to push more whole grain or kept bemoaning the fact that the peasants in Paris didn’t want to eat this more whole grain flour. They felt that whole grain flour was better for workers–this is also a big motif in medical books of the 1500s and 1600s, that if you’re a worker, if you’re a laborer, you need to have a more whole grain bread. But if you’re a student, if you’re a person like us, who don’t have calluses on our hands and just work the computer keyboard, then people like use don’t need all that good value from the bread and white bread is more appropriate for us. They also recognized that there was more calories per unit–they sensed that it was denser calories, because they felt that someone who was very thin should eat white bread but somebody who was fat should eat the more whole grain bread because they knew from being very close to their excrement–they were close to their shit since they shat into holes . . .

ROBERTS Chamber pots?

RUBEL Chamber pots, yes. So they knew if they ate something grainy it just went right through them. They thought that fat people should eat a more whole grain bread than white bread.

ROBERTS So you’re saying that this preference for white bread and a reaction against this preference are both quite ancient?

RUBEL Yes, absolutely. That’s right.Now the bread that you like that I make is a very dense bread and part of this idea of using the past to look at our own bread culture is to say, ‘Gee, what breads were there back then and what were they like?’ The rich people have liked open crumb for a very long time and the medical books do say that the best breads have eyes, have air holes in them. On the other hand, the most common breads were fairly dense: rye bread and rye wheat bread or in England, breads just made with barley flour that could be fairly dense. But the old texts also often speak about the nice flavor of some of these dense breads. I find making bread, while you are a great fan of the dense bread and seem to respond to its flavor and . . .

ROBERTS Texture, too.

RUBEL Right. But I have a friend who’s (I don’t like to use that term foodie) like a gourmet–he likes to eat a lot, he’s very focused on food, but has very definite ideas about what’s good and what isn’t good and is very concerned about what’s good and not good. He just says, ‘William, when are you going to make a bread that’s any good, when are you going to make a good bread?’

ROBERTS You’re kidding. He says that now?

RUBEL Yes. He does not like the dense breads. He says they’re not well made.

ROBERTS What is his complaint?

RUBEL That they’re dense. Because density, or a lack of density, is a cultural attribute. Germans don’t feel that a 100% rye bread you see made and exported in those plastic, square loaves in plastic packages in the deli shop–and those obviously have no air holes–people in Germany are not saying, ‘Oh my god, this bread would be great if only it had air holes.’ It’s a style of bread, it’s a style and they appreciate.

ROBERTS You’re saying that the preference for an airy bread is cultural.

RUBEL Preference for an airy bread is cultural. For example the high status white bread in the 1400s and the 1500s (probably also earlier than that) was a white bread that was made with a very dense dough, 50% water to 50% flour, which would be very dense. Using modern flour, your ciabatta, is 75% water, maybe 78% water, by weight of flour. If you have 100 pounds of flour, the baker will be adding 78 pounds of water. Whereas this other bread would have been made with 50 pounds of water. The more hydrated the dough is, there’s some other factors involved, but the wetter the dough is, the easier it is for it to expand and make big air holes. All of this artisan bread that we like that has nice air holes–those are all yeast breads, so they’re moving to very, very hydrated doughs relative to historic practices.

Even at the turn of the 20th century, a standard English bakery book said that 50% water was the standard recipe. I have one book, a big English commercial bread book, the biggest book for bakers, by a man named Kirkland. He traveled around continental Europe and he said he was quite surprised to find that in Holland they were making breads with more water than they do in England. They were not following that 50% standard.

If you get back to 50% water by weight, and then they worked it for a long time. There’s an American biscuit called a beaten biscuit, where you work the dough in a mangle over and over again, for an hour. You just break down the gluten chains; you make a dough that is very elastic, very velvety. But it will never give you big air holes. What you’re getting is lots of really tiny holes. They would work the dough with their feet or they would work it with a tool called the break, which was a stick attached by a pivot to the wall. The baker would work this stick over the dough (actually with his body weight he would sit on the stick, sort of bouncing on the dough) for a long, long time until it was, as we would say, overkneaded. You would also be oxidizing it. It would turn whiter as you worked it a lot. They would get a very white bread with a very soft interior. They did not want a crust on it, a dark crust, so they also baked it in an over probably at about 250 degrees Fahrenheit, maybe even a little bit less.

ROBERTS Do you buy Thorsten Veblen’s view of this, why people like white bread? You use the phrase ‘conspicuous consumption’ from Veblen. Do you think that’s pretty close to what’s going on? People are trying to advertise their leisure time or their ability to pay. It’s like having a fancy gadget today. It’s a way of showing status.

RUBEL Yes. You buy imported butter. Most peoples’ tables, especially in our social class–the people who are reading your blog–are filled with cultural signs. What salt do you use? Are you using Leslie salt in the blue container and the little umbrella or are you buying sea salt? Are you buying salt from France? What kind of cheese do you eat? If you don’t eat Velveeta cheese, or some commercial American cheese, are you doing that entirely for flavor or is there some aspect to a little bit of showing off? Food is all about signs. Once you’re not just eating to eat, you’re saying a lot about who you are by . . .

ROBERTS Especially if you have guests, or tell other people what you eat.

RUBEL That’s right. Exactly. When you have people over to dinner and have that special olive . And also, we develop cuisines that work together with the foods that we like. White bread works well if you’re having a refined meal where the cook has spent a lot of effort to highlight ingredients or spices or herbs or whatever it is that is the highlight of that cuisine. White bread is more neutral than ____ or rye bread, which has a stronger flavor in of itself. Whole grain bread is giving you all that bran, which is filling and the bread’s not the meal; the bread’s the side dish. I think that there gets to be, also, confusion between bread as a meal and bread as a side dish. Even in the modern critique of white bread. Like, ‘white bread is bad for you, it has no roughage in it.’ But how much of it do you really eat? Does it make any difference? Or, ‘it’s empty calories.’ Well, okay, it’s empty calories; so is having a Coca-Cola, obviously. Or one of those fancy vitamin drinks. We eat a lot of empty calories; your wine is empty calories.

ROBERTS Water is empty liquid.

RUBEL Water is certainly empty calories.

ROBERTS  We’ve covered the main points. But if you have more time, I’d like to ask you one or two more questions. When you’ve been going into this history, what sort of things have surprised you or have been different than what you’d expected?

RUBEL There’s a lot more variety. I found cornbread from France which apparently was a staple bread in southern France in the 18th century. I’m also finding that most of our ideas are just not right. We’ve fixed on this French bread that only uses water but in real life–and it’s a high status French bread that we have fixed on–but in read life high status French people also liked bread that had fat in it. They had milk bread–breads made with milk and a little bit of butter. There was more variety then, even at the rich person’s table than we have now. I’ve been surprised–maybe not as surprised about them, but once again surprised and sort of disappointed or shocked to see how narrow-minded our own culture is in some respects.

ROBERTS I totally agree. I think that’s such a great point. There’s a story that Jane Jacobs tells that I keep retelling because it just comes up again and again. When she was a teenager, she went to a small town in rural North Carolina, maybe. She visited an aunt, and her aunt told her the story that when her aunt had come there, maybe 10 years ago, her aunt was assigned the task of building a church, or overseeing it. She told the villagers, ‘Hey let’s build it out of stone.’ And the villagers said, ‘No, that’s not possible.’ So they laughed at her. They had forgotten that it was possible to build buildings out of stone. You’re saying that it’s not just a small town–this isolated little town in rural South Carolina–it’s our whole culture. We’ve forgotten all these ways to make bread.

RUBEL Yes, or we’ve rejected them. Because it’s somebody else’s bread. You go to a Mexican bakery and they have milk rolls.

ROBERTS They have what?

RUBEL They have bread that has milk in it. Or eggs or butter. We used to have Parker House rolls; that was a big American roll, and now our social group–we’ve rejected that. It’s gone. And yet high status French people in the 18th century would have loved Parker House rolls and had breads that were very similar to that. I guess going back has reminded me of that.

ROBERTS Can I call it the new elitism?

RUBEL I don’t think that’s unfair. We have this particularly American variety of elitism, and I can’t speak for our European cousins, where we don’t recognize class in it. You go to a Mexican market and they’re selling Wonderbread or the equivalent and you go to our market–I live in Santa Cruz–and where the professors go, and we don’t have that bread at all. Or we have a weird industrialized version in Orowheat breads, which may be ostensibly whole grain but are actually industrialized products that make a whole grain bread so they can say that it’s whole grain or say that it has nine grains in it but effectively they’re really offering you something with the texture of a white bread.

We’re elite without recognizing the class. Whereas in old books–cookbooks and books that talked about bread in the 18th century and the 17th century–they were very up front. This bread was for the owner, this bread was for the servant and this bread was for the farm worker, the lower status person. They saw the status in bread; they recognized that it was there. They lived in a more overtly hierarchical society. Not more overtly, but they recognized that it was hierarchical, whereas we tend not to recognize it, especially in America where we have this mythos that everybody can be anything we want. Obama can be president, yes, but the social system is not quite so open. And there are breads associated with that lack of openness.

ROBERTS  Do you mean that our choice of breads is a reflection of a lack of openness?

RUBEL Yes. I think that if you do an anthropological study, in the greater Berkeley area, of social status and bread, you’re going to find very clear correlations.

ROBERTS Yes. How dare we!

RUBEL And part of it is just based on cost. It’s cheaper to buy a double packet of Wonderbread at Safeway even if you might want the other. On the other hand, there’s reason why Wonderbread is a good bread for many purposes.

ROBERTS Yes; I use it in my research. Thank you, William, that was wonderful.

Part 1. Part 2.

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